The San Jose Sharks cameoed in the film responsible for one of their biggest rivals.
That film was “The Mighty Ducks,” Disney’s 1992 underdog story about a ragtag group of Minnesota youth hockey players who -- spoiler alert -- overcome the odds to win a championship. It led to the creation of two franchises, serving as the first in a trilogy of hockey films for the studio, and the namesake for Disney’s NHL team, the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim.
The (no-longer Disney-owned and no-longer Mighty) Ducks have played 140 games against the Sharks between the regular season and the playoffs, and there is no love lost between the two California clubs. The film predates their ill will by a year, and 15 minutes into it, jokester Lester Averman (played by Matt Doherty) wears a Sharks T-shirt.
The scene introduced Averman and his teammates to the film’s main character, Gordon Bombay. Played by Emilio Estevez, the hot-shot lawyer begrudgingly agrees to coach the Ducks as community service following a DUI arrest.
This early in the film, the Ducks aren’t convincing hockey players, but they are convincing hockey fans. One character wears a Philadelphia Flyers coat and shirt, and another’s jacket bears pins from the University of Minnesota.
Steven Brill, the film’s writer and a lifelong hockey fan, originally envisioned all the kids wearing local teams’ gear. But he and the production team made an exception.
“My initial thing was, ‘Everyone should have [Minnesota] North Stars jerseys,’ ” Brill recently told NBC Sports California in a phone interview. “And then I think we wanted to mix it up, and use something cool, which was the new Sharks [logo] which had just come out.”
The Sharks still were in the middle of their inaugural season when “The Mighty Ducks” entered production in early 1992. San Jose’s logo -- a black shark biting through a hockey stick -- was distinct, as was the teal color scheme. That combination hit a commercial sweet spot.
In their first season, the Sharks sold $150 million worth of merchandise, The New York Times reported in 1992. That accounted for more than a quarter (27 percent) of the league’s sales, and only Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls ($300 million) sold more among American professional sports teams that year.
Sales didn’t just happen stateside, either. What does Prince William (yes, that Prince William) have in common with future San Jose stars Brent Burns and Logan Couture? All three wore Sharks gear in photographs from their childhoods.
“You play for the Sharks, that’s a logo every kid loves,” Burns told local reporters in January. “I think if you look back at most NHL players when they’re kids, they have a Sharks jersey at some point. It’s just a great logo.”
Brill thought so, too. The NHL had approved the use of other team logos in the film, such as the Calgary Flames, but Averman instead wore the shirt of the trendy expansion team.
According to Brill, it was “super important to reflect the reality of the NHL at that time,” and authenticity was paramount to the filmmakers. That commitment drove decisions at every level of production. When designing the Ducks’ sweaters, for example, production designer Randy Ser turned to youth hockey leagues for real-world inspiration.
“I think that was our major goal was to tell the story of these kids,” Ser said, “but to tell the story very truthfully, and in a way that could relate to people who held this sport and grew up with this sport. … It was a big driving factor for all of us to make sure we got it right.”
Audiences thought they did. Although critical reception was mixed, the film received an "A" audience grade from CinemaScore and grossed over $50 million domestically. Disney had a hit, and the timing was fortuitous for then-CEO Michael Eisner.
A hockey fan himself, Eisner had been thinking about bringing an NHL team to Anaheim -- the home of Disneyland -- before the film was greenlit. On Dec. 10, 1992, just over two months after the release of “The Mighty Ducks,” the NHL awarded Disney an expansion team.
Three months later, Eisner announced the name.
Eisner did so wearing the movie’s green Mighty Ducks jersey, the sight of which Ser thought was “just unfathomable.” Hala Bahmet, a set costume designer on the film, said she remembers hearing “chatter” during production that a Disney-owned NHL team “could be a possibility in the future.”
Seeing that come to fruition, in large part because of the film’s surprise success, was another thing entirely.
“I had no idea that it was going to be kind of this phenomenon that it turned into being,” she said. “Just like ‘The Sandlot’ [which Bahmet also worked on]. These '90s sports movies are still really meaningful, and really powerful for people now. Whether they saw them as kids, or whatever it is, it just has this staying power.”
The nostalgia surrounding the film makes that much clear. In February, the Ducks hosted Brill and cast members from all three “Mighty Ducks” films at events to celebrate the team’s 25th anniversary, including a screening of the movie that started it all.
Who’s a Duck!— Anaheim Ducks (@AnaheimDucks) February 13, 2019
A huge shoutout to the cast - and our fans - who came out to The Yost Theatre for tonight’s Mighty Ducks Movie Experience.
It was one movie night we’ll never forget! pic.twitter.com/L2FMnpgeBB
Brill is working on a follow-up. He told NBC Sports California that the script for a “Mighty Ducks” television pilot is “almost done, and we’re gonna decide with Disney if we’re going to make a whole series for the streaming platform [Disney Plus].”
Whether or not the Sharks again have a background role remains to be seen, but Brill said he “always liked” the team and the logo. The production received additional Sharks memorabilia from the NHL after filming the scene with Averman, and Brill remembers keeping a hat from the set that longtime Sharks forward Owen Nolan eventually signed.
“I don’t know where it is, but I do have a storage place with a lot of this stuff,” Brill said when asked what he took from the set. “I bet I have some cool old Sharks stuff from that haul.”